North Carolina Republicans roll back ban on masking for health reasons

Reversing course on a controversial proposal to ban public mask wearing in North Carolina, Republican lawmakers have agreed to exempt face coverings worn for health reasons from a proposed law passed by the Senate on Thursday.

A new compromise version of House Bill 237, which is labeled “unmasking mobs and criminals,” allows wearing “medical or surgical grade masks for the purpose of preventing the spread of contagious disease.” 

The language was inserted following widespread backlash to an attempted repeal of an existing health and safety exemption for wearing masks in public put in place during the COVID pandemic. 

The new version of the bill was introduced to both the House and Senate on Thursday. A meeting to review the revised legislation by the House Rules Committee was scheduled to follow the House’s morning session and then promptly canceled. 

The new version of the bill passed the Senate 28-0 around noon after Democrats walked out on a late morning Senate session. The Democrat Caucus is expected to hold a press conference about their walkout later today. 

It also provides stiffer penalties for crimes committed while “wearing a mask, hood, or other clothing or device to conceal or attempt to conceal the defendant’s identity.”

Proponents of the bill, including Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican representing Green, Wayne and Wilson counties, say the measure prevents criminals from using outdated COVID protections to hide their identities.

Those against the measure contend the bill attacks civil liberties and ignores the ongoing public health benefits of masking indoors and at crowded outdoor spaces. Critics have expressed concern about the impact on the immunocompromised or ill. 

Even with the changes allowing medical masks, the measure is seen by opponents as a crackdown on protestors wearing face masks or other sorts of face coverings. 

Public mask wearing is already illegal in North Carolina, which outlawed the practice in an effort to stamp out hooded Ku Klux Klan activities in the 1950s. The ban includes exceptions for “masquerade balls” and “wearing traditional holiday costumes in season” as well as protective gear for first responders and other emergency workers.

In 2020, during the COVID pandemic, exceptions were granted “for the physical health or safety of the wearer or others.” Section one of the new law would wipe out that exception.

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